Brightening the Corners

As the world grows increasingly bleak, indie-rockwunderkind Stephen Malkmus tries whistling in the dark for his band's latest, the sprawling, freewheeling Pig Lib.

Let it never be said that Stephen Malkmus is impervious to the troubles of the world.

Despite frequent appearances in the court jester's suit throughout his tenure as the reluctant frontman for Pavement, the indie scene's Phi Beta Kappa slumming outfit of choice for the better part of the '90s, Malkmus acknowledges that the onset of his mid-30s has brought with it a gradual acceptance that times have indeed changed. And, in turn, so has his approach to making music.

"It was an effort to bring a little depth and seriousness to the proceedings without trying to write a war song," says Malkmus drowsily of his latest recorded effort with the Jicks, Pig Lib (Matador). "We did it at Bear Creek [the rural recording studio situated on a 10-acre farm in Woodinville, Wash.], where it's almost never sunny, although it's always beautiful. That kind of rubs offit's a moody place. It just wasn't time for a sunny record lyricallythings aren't easy in the world, and the lyrics reflect that."

Judging from the output of these sessions, however, you'd be hard-pressed to prove that Malkmus is going gently into his creative good night. Pig Lib is a record-collector's record, the kind of rambling work that reveals a swath of influences broad enough to fill an ocean, as well as the sound of four musicians getting off on the sheer joy of creative communication and making something fresh from the dialogue. Reflective lyrical passages aside, it's the most psychedelic, expansive-sounding thing Malkmus has been part of since Pavement's offhanded 1995 classic, Wowee Zowee.

Above all, Pig Lib is the result of a collective effort, less a solo record than the kind of product Neil Young churns out when returning to the Crazy Horse fold. Which will certainly confuse those who believed that Malkmus' departure from Pavement was intended to create the sort of elbow room that his band could not afford him.

"It's not much fun to be the guy by yourself," he explains. "You start feeling selfish, like a Scientologist or something. The Pavement guys could tell you that I had a more controlling mentality in the early days," he concedes with a wry laugh, alluding to the fact that his will to power resulted in at least one critic labeling the band's oft-praised 1994 release Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain a "damn fine case for dictatorship." "In Pavement, we used to just ram songs through. Around that Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee time, there was no real group dynamic, per se, it was just, 'This is a song, here's how it goes, and it's gonna be good.'

"I always wanted to share some of the burden of being in a band. We're 35 now, and it's hard to treat people like a hired person when you're that old. They're adults, fully realized people," he muses of bandmates and Portland-scene vets Joanna Bolme (ex-Minders), John Moen (ex-Dharma Bums, Fastbacks), and recent addition Mike Clark. "And everybody's been picked carefully. We're not so precious about every little note. There's definitely a time in your life when you are all you think about. But at a certain age, you want a different edge. If you're in your 30s making music, you don't want it to sound like it was made by an emo-wracked twentysomething. That'd be pathetic."

Pig Lib, far from registering as the pitiful navel gazing of a younger, less certain man is instead marked by a kind of thrift-shop grandeur; clearly the work of an older, occasionally wiser, person. The patina of age had turned Malkmus' compositions in on themselves like a well-worn rally cap. Sure, there is the odd nod to the inevitable cessation of earthly activitiesin "Ramp of Death"which updates Neil Young's "Old Man" in the most dispassionate fashion possible without actually lapsing into a coma. But it's hard to imagine S.M. writing something as sweetly self-aware as "Us" (its male/female harmony vocals fixated on illuminating the gray corners of a new relationship: "I don't really know your taste in ceilings, I don't know the rpm you rev"), the pop-sweetened track that closes Pig Lib, back when he was poking vicious fun at the greed of the music industry on Wowee Zowee's "Brinx Job."

Of course, none of this means that Malkmus has gotten any easier to read over the years. The new record's title is precisely the sort of elliptical Scrabble-inspired wordplay he's made a career out of tossing to the floor like so many encoded breadcrumbs"It's just a fun title. I don't have an answer for itit could have multiple interpretations, I suppose," he says, a smirk practically audible over the phone line. And while the lyrical mood of the record is indeed somewhat down at the mouth, there are individual lines that indicate his love of leg-pulling tomfoolery is far from fully realized. "The avenue is in a panic, Bob Packwood wants to suck your toes," he tosses off in the organ-laced "Vanessa From Queens," while in "Craw Song," Malkmus threads together a couplet only Lou Reed or Ray Davies could pull off: "Martha wants Jackie, Jackie wants William, and William wants Leroy, but Leroy is straight/He couldn't commit to the mental jujitsu of switchin' his hittin' from ladies to men." For Malkmus, the game is, as ever, a complicated one, fraught with as many contradictions as life itself.

One subject that elicits a relatively straightforward response from Malkmus these days is the notion of modern celebrity. Malkmus is, to put it mildly, conflicted about the role of fame in our society, and has recently skewered a few of the more odious examples in public (he told Entertainment Weekly that Sting "grosses me out," lambasted Jimmy Fallon as "anti-talent," and took Halle Berry to task for being "in love with herself"). When discussion turns to the inevitable threat of war in the Middle East, Malkmus warms to the topic, albeit through his own particular filter.

"I'm just so conflicted about the whole thing," he says resignedly about the debate over whether a war in Iraq is justified or not. "I'm not a fan of the knee-jerk, anti-war, blind pacifism. It hasn't always been the right thing to be pacifistic in the world. Being the aggressor hasn't proven to be the greatest idea in recent times, but jumping into World War II was a good thing. Everyone can have their opinions that's good," he continues. "Mine might supposedly be worth slightly more than someone else's because people know who I am, but I'm not gonna be like Janeane Garofalo or Sean Penn and think I should be in a Washington, D.C., think tank because I'm a movie star.

"It's so typical of [celebrities]," he concludes. "They make their money and we talk about 'em, but that's enough. Keep 'em in People magazine and not [on] CNN. Stars expect everything to be free for them. Why don't they pay for some ads? Sean Penn could easily use one ninety-ninth of his salary from a film to put an ad out, but no, he can't do that." Malkmus then goes on to relate a funny anecdote about John Cougar Mellencamp and a busted gig at Madison Square Garden where John-boy apparently told the audience he wasn't "feeling it" and encouraged fans to ask for their money back. "He thinks he's the literate working man, but he's not. He's kind of a buffoon, no offense." Hey, Stephen, none taken, really.

If Pig Lib is any indication of where Malkmus is going musically, it's indeed good to have him back among us again, band once more in tow. While he previously might have qualified as the Marlene Dietrich of indiedomall still-photo glamour and solitudePig Lib indicates a musical and personal progression leaning more toward an image of Malkmus as the Robert Redford of rock: a team player, albeit one with a past. Unless, of course, something about Bob grosses Stephen out, too.

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